Sixty years after the last bearded vulture pair disappeared from Picos de Europa, a pair of bearded vultures is suggesting they want to make the Picos their home.
The last known breeding of the species in the region dates from 1956, from the Asturias slopes – interestingly, the pair now roaming the northern parts of the Picos de Europa National Park has settled only 3 km away from the last known nest.
The two birds are a 4 year old female called Deva, that had been released in Picos in 2010 by the Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos (FCQ), and a wild adult male, probably from the Pyrenees, that dispersed to the west and arrived in 2013 in Picos. He has travelled far and wide through the Cantabrian Mountains, and finally settled near Deva.
Deva is still too young for breeding – this species usually only starts breeding at 7 to 9 years of age, but in the last few weeks staff from the Parque Nacional de Picos de Europa have observed the pair mating, defending their territory from other birds of prey, and also transporting wool to potential nest sites in three different cavities –the first signs of breeding behaviour. You can some images of the pair together, and listen to staff from FCQ here. It is normal for young pairs of this species to start breeding rituals 1 to 3 years before they finally start laying eggs and raising chicks.
The pair settled in an area with favourable habitat, with plenty of wild and domestic ungulates that provide the food they need – adults feed mostly on bones, but young chicks require meat from fresh carcasses every day.
Bearded vultures are one of the rarest birds in Europe, occurring currently only in the Pyrenees (166 pairs, with roughly two-thirds on the Spanish side), Corsica (6 pairs), Crete (8 pairs) and the Alps (30 pairs), where the species has been successfully reintroduced by the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) and a number of alpine partners, following extinction in the beginning of the 20th century.
The Alpine reintroduction – one of the most remarkable wildlife comeback stories of the last few decades in Europe- has inspired other bearded vulture reintroduction projects elsewhere, and three other projects are currently ongoing: In Andalusia (Sierras de Cazorla, Segura, Castril & Las Villas), in a project led by the Junta de Andalucía and the VCF – birds have been released there since 1986 and the first matings have also been observed recently, see the VCF website for more details; in Grands Causses, in the French massif central, in a project led by LPO and the VCF, that aims to establish a connection between the Alpine and the Pyrenean population; and a new EU-funded project to reintroduce the species in Picos de Europa (2013-2018), with chicks from the Pyrenees, led by the FCQ, with support from the Governments of Aragón, Asturias, Castilla y León and Cantabria, and the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture and Environment.